Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life @ the National Gallery

Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761 – 1845) was 28 and an established painter when the French Revolution broke out. He managed not to get his head cut off by the apostles of freedom and equality, going on to survive the rise and fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and enjoying a long and successful career – 84 was quite a ripe old age, especially back then.

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The National Gallery owns just one Boilly painting, the small but intriguing A Girl at a Window. For this exhibition they’ve borrowed 20 works from a British private collection which have never previously been displayed or published and hung them all in Room One of the gallery (up the stairs and immediately to your left, if you come in the main entrance).

So this really is an unparalleled opportunity to find out more about an artist who is little known in Britain.

The twenty paintings and drawings on display show that Boilly was a lot of fun. He comes from an era when people used paintings for amusement and entertainment and information and titillation.

The latter motive is to the fore in two or three of his paintings from the 1790s. In these boudoir scenes or ‘seductive interiors’ Boilly combines two or three of key concerns. One is human interest. This is an anecdotal scene of two nubile young women comparing feet (and stockings). For the time this was quite a ‘saucy’ picture in that you can see a lot of the ladies’ stockinged feet and (as the wall label points out) a titillating amount of bosom on the verge of falling out of both women’s dresses. Boilly was certainly not highbrow. He wanted to please and entertain.

Comparing Little Feet, about 1791 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Comparing Little Feet (about 1791) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

But the second feature of this painting is the phenomenal attention to detail. When you lean in you can see how much fun he’s had capturing the difference textures and surfaces and the play of light on the wooden table, the pink sash, the silver tankard and the sheets of paper behind them. A tremendous eye for detail and a concern that the image is completely finished. The looseness of brush we are used to in the Impressionists and everyone who followed is inconceivable here. Every millimetre of the canvas is covered in paint which depicts the scene in loving detail.

But it was scenes of Parisian street life that made Boilly famous. the exhibition includes half a dozen paintings of street scenes – working men gambling at a tavern, a beggar importuning a smartly dressed couple couple, a small crowd of gawpers gathered round a punch and judy booth.

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

This is narrative or anecdote painting. You’re meant to admire the overall composition, but then are encouraged to look out for all the humorous touches and details the painter has included – the boy at far right trying to look inside the booth, the soldiers at far left commenting, the old lady nursing a baby under the tree, the dog on the left has he seen or smelt something? And of course the central event they’re all looking at which is the hand puppet of Mr Punch trying to fit a hoop over the neck of a cat.

Note the twee little girl in a bonnet with her face turned towards us. Boilly’s crowd scenes nearly always include someone looking out directly at the viewer, including us in the scene. And then, stepping back, note that by far the brightest, best illuminated part of the painting is the bright pink and white dresses of the two young ladies with their backs to us.  Once you’ve noticed how dazzlingly bright they are, you can read the painting again, purely in terms of the play of light and shade. When you do that, you come to appreciate how cannily Boilly has used various levels of lighting to create a dynamic interplay between different parts of the composition.

The French Revolution brought a new class to power, very loosely definable as the bourgeoisie, the educated middle classes who supplanted the French aristocracy in positions of power. Boilly’s naughty but nice interiors, and his observant depictions of street scenes were aimed at this new market. Instead of lofty allegories about Greek gods – the kind of thing which made aristocrats feel clever and godlike – Boilly’s pictures depict Parisian life as it actually was, naughty young ladies, beggars, the homeless, street entertainers, fine looking bourgeoisie, workers in rags.

The teemingness of it, the panoramic effect reminds me of the huge series of novels written by Honoré de Balzac which commenced in the same year as the Poor Cat and as what is arguably Boilly’s masterpiece, A Carnival Scene.

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

It is a winter’s afternoon and characters from the Italian commedial dell’arte are roaming the streets of Paris alongside men dressed as monkeys and aristocratic spectres from the pre-revolutionary era. Down at the front is a dog leaping with a theatrical mask over its tail, a boy is blowing a horn, a fat lady is climbing into the coach in the middle and her skirts have blown up to reveal her bare buttocks. This is the largest panorama of Paris life Boilly attempted, and I think you can detect its influence in later panoramic anecdotal paintings.

There’s a (slightly spooky) figure at the front a third of the way across the painting which is holding out its arms to the scampering dog. This gesture reminded me of William Powell Frith’s classic panorama, Derby Day, painted about 25 years later in 1858, where, in the centre at the front an acrobat entertainer dressed in white with yellow shorts is holding out his arms to his son who is completely distracted by the lavish meal being laid out on a picnic to his left (our right).

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 - 1858)

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 – 1858)

Comparing the two paintings brings out how totally Frith has assimilated all the lessons of painting and applied them directly to depicting his day with complete realism, fastidiously capturing costume, human types, and the chaotic teeming of the crowd.

By contrast Boilly seems very dated. The pink sky and the overall brown hue refers back to the countless landscapes of the Dutch school of the 17th century. Although his crowd is teeming, too, a look at any individual in it indicates that they are either caricatures (all the masked and costumed characters) or sentimentalised (the young ladies) and Boilly uses bright white light to lead the eye towards the centre of the composition and the fine lady in an expensive yellow dress, which acts as a sort of visual and psychological anchor. The well-heeled bourgeoisie are still at the heart of, still in control of things.

Portraits

Boilly’s depictions of modern urban life made his reputation at the Salon, but it was his vast output of portraits which made him his income. Over the course of  his career he painted over 5,000 small portraits for a huge range of patrons, soldiers, lawyers, members of the Napoleonic nobility and the bourgeoisie.

Most of these were smallish oil portraits measuring about 22cm by 17cm. It is recorded that they took him about two hours to complete. He was nothing if not a pro. But I’ve chosen to represent his skill at depicting the human face with this set of charcoal and chalk drawings of Jean Darcet and six members of his family. It’s a funny mix of the conventional and the truly realistic. The two young ladies on either side of the venerable patriarch have rather simpering expressions and the chap at bottom left looks like a certain stock type of 18th century portrait. It was the row of sons along the bottom that caught my attention, specially the chap with the porky cheeks second from left. I really like the way they all have very loose and scruffy haircuts.

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sentimentality

Connected to the portraits are Boilly’s rather sickly sweet treatment of small children. Boilly was married twice (both wives predeceased him) and fathered ten children, of whom four died young. This picture depicts three of Boilly’s young sons, Julien adjusting the position of Alphonse’s head, while Édouard (left) looks on. It’s one of several which focus on small children and mothers.

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

If you look on the left you can see the boys’ pet dog is sitting to attention, with a stick over one soldier like a soldier. Yes, this is sickeningly sentimental tripe for a sensitive bourgeois audience, but Boilly knew his market very well. Pictures like this sold very well, particularly to mothers, which is why many of them feature a mother amid her oh-so-lovely brood.

Trompe l’oeil

I had no idea that Boilly coined the expression trompe l’oeil, which is French for ‘deceives the eye’ and has come to be the term used to refer to tricks with paint which create visual illusions. The final little section of the display shows three or so paintings which use trompe l’oeil effects including this, the only Boilly painting the National Gallery possesses, A Girl at a Window.

It dates from 1799, the decade when Boilly was painting his saucy interiors, and it is an interior with a young woman but there’s nothing hugely saucy about it. As in so many of the paintings the figure is looking directly out at us, inviting us into the scene and at first we are – as we’ve seen in some of his other works – mainly taken with her face and dress because this is so very highlighted, so bright, the best lit part of the composition.

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

Only slowly do our eyes adjust to the relative gloom of the rest of the scene and slowly come to realise how absolutely packed it is with anecdote and detail. To the right not just a vase but a bowl with a fish swimming in it, echoed by the smaller vial in front of it and then some kind of stick (or flute). And when you really look you realise there is a bird cage hanging on the wall above the goldfish bowl.

And to the left is an attractive young boy peering through a telescope trained off to the left. Look at the catchlight on the rim of the telescope and then on the frame and tripod supporting it. The depiction of light and reflection is wonderful.

And then you notice the frieze carved into the stone beneath the window ledge. Half a dozen characters are depicted in that, caught in some mythological travails.

It qualifies as a trompe l’oeil, as a humorous attempt to trick the viewer because although it is painted, every aspect of it is designed to make it look like a print, namely the fact that it is monochrome, painted only in shades of black, white and grey. This illusion is accentuated by the grey mount or surround for the picture which is itself painted, and by the artist’s ‘printed’ signature at bottom left.

Coming to A Girl at a Window hanging on its own in the National Gallery, you might have been intrigued for a few minutes and then passed on. The achievement of this small but beautifully formed little exhibition is to place it in the context of a life and career which was artful, clever, stylish and fun.

This is a FREE exhibition and you leave it with a smile on your face.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

There are two Serpentine Galleries. The original one was opened in 1970 in a one-time tea-room pavilion built in 1933, and has been putting on exhibitions by cutting-edge contemporary artists for nearly 50 years.

In 2013 a second site was opened – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery being the conversion into gallery space of a Grade II-listed, former gunpowder store, originally built in 1805. Whereas the original gallery is just south of the lake, the Sackler Gallery is over the bridge on the north side of the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery consists of four display corridors set in a square around two large brick rooms which once held gunpowder, and hence are named the Powder Rooms. Artists and curators are free to utilise these rather dark mysterious spaces or not, as required.

From a practical point of view, maybe the most important thing about the two galleries is that, while they host a steady stream of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists, they are both COMPLETELY FREE.

Tomma Abts

Just opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first ever solo exhibition by leading German woman artist, Tomma Abts. It is one of the largest collections of her work shown anywhere, bringing together 25 works from the last decade.

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Abts is best known for her acrylic and oil paintings which ring an extraordinary variety of changes on a limited number of motifs and colours, all contained within a uniform canvas size of precisely 48cm by 38cm.

Why this size? Because, she explained at the press launch I attended, it allows freedom and flexibility. A little larger and you have to begin to plan and compose the work. At this size, works can be reworked, reversioned and remodelled.

The process of making

Starting with her standard-sized canvas, Abst lays down a bed of acrylic paint, lets it dry, and then begins experimenting with shapes, hand drawing in patterns, beginning to colour them with oil paint, getting a sense of their play and interaction.

There is no subject, nothing is being depicted. It is a completely open process. Guided only by intuition and a feeling for design, for what works and what doesn’t, Abts slowly builds towards a final version, painting over earlier patterns and designs, until shapes and colours crystallise into a new work.

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

The results are surprisingly varied and visually interesting. They also have a genuinely hypnotic quality.

For a start, you can get far more up-close-and-personal to Abt’s work than you can to most paintings.

  • None of them have a frame – which makes them more approachable in an obvious physical sense, but also in a more subtle aesthetic way.
  • They are not covered with a glass sheet, unlike so many paintings in so many galleries – thus you don’t get horrible reflections to put you off an immediate and full cognition of the image.
  • There is no marker on the floor a yard from the works and no officious security dude telling you to keep your distance. You can go up as close as you like. You could easily touch the surface if you wanted to, and you can certainly examine the canvas from just inches away.
  • There are no wall labels to distract you with information about the title, date, materials or anything else. Each work stands alone on the blank white wall in its own zone of attraction.
  • And the hang has been done deliberately so all the works are about five feet off the ground, at exactly head, and eye, height.

All of this has been done to encourage you to really ‘engage’ with the works. To look closely and then look again. I got chatting to one of the gallery assistants (an Italian guy) and we spent a good five minutes looking closely at Unno.

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

We noticed that:

  • The oil paint is deep. The canvas has been painted over, and then over again. This gives the surface of the canvas – seen up close – a noticeable grain and texture, and the image as a whole – seen from a little further back – a kind of richness and depth.
  • Looking close, you can see the traces of where previous designs have been painted over but left their marks. Each painting is thus a palimpsest (‘something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form’). The closer you look, the more residues and traces of earlier compositions you see – in the case of Unno you can make out wavy lines which had once existed but have been painted over to create a completely geometric image – but which nonetheless have left a ghostly residue.
  • Next, the light source. Only after really looking for a while did I realise that some of the patterns are given the illusion of depth by being painted as if casting ‘shadows’ – namely the two diagonal sticks. But only two of them. The third one doesn’t have a shadow. I presume the use of some shadow creates the illusion of depth and so the traditional painterly notion of looking into a three-dimensional space, while the unshadowed elements (the third stick and the ring) do not have shadow but sit purely on the surface. The result doesn’t clash, but adds complexity to your perception.
  • Also playing with conventions of light and depth is the way the brown circle which dominates the image is much lighter on the right, as if it is a metal ring and is being burnished by sunshine or some other light source coming from that direction. And yet, unlike the sticks, it doesn’t have a shadow.
  • Taken together, these are deliberately trompe l’oeil effects, aspects of oil painting which can be played with to deceive the mind. Having observed all these elements, if you put them back together you realise that, although they’re there, they don’t seriously disrupt or undermine the composition: they enhance and deepen it.

And all of this is before you come to consider the palette, the particular combination of colours being used – obviously dominated by the brown background, with a darker brown (though deceptively burnished metallic aspect) for the ring. And against this the three ‘sticks’ which combine pink and beige and light blue punctuated with their own brown blips to create… to create what?

Well, a distinct and powerful colour world. Just for this work. Other works have completely different palettes, for example, the acid yellow of Feke pictured at the top of this review, or the limited use of acid yellow against a much more sombre backdrop in Fiebe.

Each of these one-off colour schemes creates a specific ‘mood’, just as the patterns and shapes create a different action or motif. At one point I thought of ballet, of evenings of ballet I’ve been to where they put on three or four short works by completely different composers, each one creating its own mood, colour, music and imagine-world.

In a way Abt’s paintings are like ballets, each with a unique set, with dancers dressed in weird, abstract or geomorphic costumes, and each has its own peculiar ‘music’.

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric?

No. A number of them, admittedly a minority of the works on show here, make a point of being ‘looser’ and more organic.

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Almost all of them use the same devices of shadow to create illusory ‘space’, and the ‘burnishing’ of some lines or surfaces as if they are metallic and closer to a light source – all the tactics I noticed in Unno – but each cast in their own strongly unified colour schemes. Each with its own music of colour and composition.

In some of them the shadowing gave the elements a bit more of a physical and tactile quality. I wanted to reach into this one and tug the ribbon or wool or paper or string, and dangle and twirl it for my cat to play with.

Playing with the canvas

Having got to grips with Abt’s core or base style, you then come across works where she plays with it, evolves it, varies it.

Specifically, there are a number of works which take the painting-as-object idea further by experimenting with the shape of the canvas. Some have one corner gently rounded off. Others have a corner sharply cut off. And some of the canvases have been cut entirely in two.

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

The most radical experiment with form was the couple of works which she had designed and then had cast in aluminium – quite a big step away from the organic process of painting and repainting which the other works make such a virtue out of.

For me the ‘whole’ works, with their integrated colour schemes and subtle trompe l’oeil effects, with their textured surfaces and the just-visible traces of previous designs – maintain a subtle and pleasing balance between being objects you look into, absorbed by colour and composition, and objects you look at, beguiled by their obvious presence as objects-in-the-world.

I can see why Abts was drawn to experiment with her basic format – after all, why not? – and I was intrigued and pleased with some of them. But somehow I felt that the fundamental idea of a kind of never-ending sequence of 48cm by 38cm canvases itself had a kind of formal beauty. I felt a little let down by the ‘altered’ canvases.

Larger scale

And the same went for the three larger canvases which the show includes. These are all 86.5 x 63.5 cm, so nearly twice the dimensions of the ‘standard’ Abts work.

It was interesting to learn from the artist herself that this significant increase in scale required an entirely different working procedure, namely that the design had to be completely finished and composed before the work began. 86.5 x 63.5 cm turns out to be too big a scale to experiment, revise and repaint on.

Stylistically, they are recognisably the same kind of geometric patterns incorporating trompe l’oeil shadow effects as their smaller cousins – indeed the need for formal composition meant that Abts was able to select very precisely where lines would intersect or hit the canvas edge, and so all three seem a bit more vividly, even abrasively, mathematical in design.

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

But I didn’t feel they necessarily added anything to the fundamental concept which the 48cm canvases so powerfully convey. She’s interspersed the three big ones in among the regular 48cm works but, to my mind, they required seeing in a noticeably different way. I’d have preferred to see them hung next to each other, maybe with 2 or 3 others, to have made a separate section of the show, so that you could soak up all the implications of the difference in scale more thoroughly.

Conclusion

These paintings by Tomma Abts are really beautiful, absorbing, mesmeric works which offer up more and more rewards, the closer you look.

Many paintings are just paintings, but Abt’s works are like a kind of Zen training in How to Look, to look closely, and then to look again.

And the exhibition is FREE. It’s in a lovely, light, air-conditioned gallery right next to the picturesque Serpentine, with its deckchairs and its ice cream vendors.

Go, and give your mind a treat.


Related links

  • Tomma Abts continues at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 September 2018

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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